September 10, 2009

Disconnect the Dots

Upon first glance at the headline, The Pentagon’s Newest Weapon Against Pirates, two thoughts comes to mind - Somalia and Predators. Luckily Time's report veered off in another direction towards the Seychelles Islands, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean, but the distance between them isn’t that far.

American officials must keep their focus on Seychelles and not wander off towards the world’s most dangerous coast.

Viewed through the smallest goals, a US mission to Seychelles benefits both parties. With only 176 square miles of land, Seychelles must police its exclusive economic zone of over 500,000 square miles. Mahé, the main island, is home to the capital, Victoria, along with 90% of the population. Heavily dependent on imports and located in the furthest reaches of the archipelago, most ships must traverse a no-mans sea. Smaller boats have no protection beyond the endless blue.

“Our isolated geographic position and our limited economic and military resources will never allow us to patrol our vast territorial waters," one Seychelles lawmaker said during a July debate on American assistance. "Foreign military help in patrol and surveillance of our waters is today a necessity.”

Naturally the US military jumped at the opportunity to increase its reach across the globe; establishing a worldwide surveillance and communications network to strike any target is one of the Air Force’s primary goals. America and Seychelles are a growing symbiotic relationship that nurtures both sides with little to no repercussions. America needs more of these relationships in Africa and the Middle East where every deal seemingly comes with a price, all the reason to prevent future discord.

America and Seychelles have been working on a defense agreement for several years, but only now has Somali piracy pushed the deal into reality. After America dispatched a mission in May (that was debated in July), Seychelles President James Michel met with US Chargée d’Affaires Mrs. Virginia Blaser and AFRICOM commander General William E. Ward in August. The result: P-3 Orion’s and a fleet of MQ-9 Reapers. While the Reapers are reportedly unarmed in accordance with international law, they’re the latest militarization off the African coast.

Vince Crawley, a spokesman for US AFRICOM, explained, “The Seychelles have been increasingly concerned about piracy in their waters.” Helping other states is key to American policy, but altruism is usually accompanied by ulterior goals. Crawley said Seychelles, “makes an ideal platform for observing the vast ocean and maritime corridors in the Indian Ocean region and assisting in counter-piracy efforts.” In other words, America’s medium-term goal is using Seychelles as a test of the Reaper’s ability to police piracy.

While every pirate isn’t Somali, their mother-ships have encroached on Seychelles in the last few years. That the increase stems in part from Somalia will inevitably tempt US eyes to view Seychelles a means to an end, not an end itself, but America mustn’t mistake patrolling Seychelles’ waters for policing Somalia. Seychelles is worlds apart from Somalia with a GDP per capita of $21,000, 73 year life expectancy, 91% literacy, 2% unemployment, and no anti-American sentiment. Seychelles simply neighbors an unstable region. Drones don't qualify as nation-building. Reapers may bring security to Seychelles, but they’ll only wrought carnage if applied to Somalia.

“We have to get at the root causes" of Somali piracy said Mary Yates, deputy commander of AFRICOM until June 2009, "and the root causes are on land."

Long-term implications seemingly jar with this reality President Michel announced that, “The piracy problem has transformed into an opportunity for us to strengthen maritime surveillance in the western Indian Ocean... It is clear that the Seychelles has become a strategic location for maritime security... we are well on the way to sealing a maritime fortress around the Seychelles islands.”

The opportunity is President Obama’s, not President Michel’s. America, the EU and India aren’t building a fortress purely out of charity. Seychelles appears on its way to becoming a major surveillance and naval base for future operations against Somalia, “a surveillance hub for international forces in Seychelles,” lauded Michel. Leveraging piracy for Western support is a win-win for him, while the West gets to use his country towards its own ends - the dead end that is Somalia.

Seychelles has the makings of a test run. Somalia and Seychelles may look like dots to connect, but they’re dots in different puzzles. Any connection is superficial and potentially destructive.

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